The Key to a Long Life: Magic (Or Maybe Climate and Diet)

Lucian, Octogenarians 3-5

“Homer claims that Nestor, obviously, the wisest of the Achaians, lived more than three generations, a man the poet explains to us was best trained in both mind and body. And the prophet Teiresis, well tragedy has him living through six generations. It might be credible that a man dedicated to the gods and who followed a reverent diet might live as long as possible.

It is recorded that whole clans of people are very long-lived thanks to their way of life—for example, the people of the Egyptians called holy-authors, the exegetes of myth in Assyria and Arabia, and the people the Indians call Brahmans, men who pursue philosophy with precision. There are also the people called the magoi, that prophetic clan dedicated to the gods among the Persians, Parthians, Bactrians, Khoasmians, Arians, Sacae, Medes, and among many other barbarian people. The magoi are strong and live many years because they learn to use magic and eat with considerable discipline.

There are, in addition, entire peoples who are long-lived: for example, some people record that the Sêres live up to 300 years. According to some authors, this is because of the weather; others claim that it is their soul or their diet that is responsible for the length of their lives—for, they claim that the whole nation drinks only water. It is reported that the people of Athos live 130 years or that the Chaldeans live over a hundred and that they rely on barley bread as a medicine to keep their vision sharp.”

Νέστορα μὲν οὖν τὸν σοφώτατον τῶν Ἀχαιῶν ἐπὶ τρεῖς παρατεῖναι γενεὰς Ὅμηρος λέγει, ὃν συνίστησιν ἡμῖν γεγυμνασμένον ἄριστα καὶ ψυχῇ καὶ σώματι. καὶ Τειρεσίαν δὲ τὸν μάντιν ἡ τραγῳδία μέχρις ἓξ γενεῶν παρατεῖναι λέγει. πιθανὸν δ᾿ ἂν εἴη ἄνδρα θεοῖς ἀνακείμενον καθαρωτέρᾳ διαίτῃ χρώμενον ἐπὶ μήκιστον βιῶναι. καὶ γένη δὲ ὅλα μακρόβια ἱστορεῖται διὰ τὴν δίαιταν, ὥσπερ Αἰγυπτίων οἱ καλούμενοι ἱερογραμματεῖς, Ἀσσυρίων δὲ καὶ Ἀράβων οἱ ἐξηγηταὶ τῶν μύθων, Ἰνδῶν δὲ οἱ καλούμενοι Βραχμᾶνες, ἄνδρες ἀκριβῶς φιλοσοφίᾳ σχολάζοντες, καὶ οἱ καλούμενοι δὲ μάγοι, γένος τοῦτο μαντικὸν καὶ θεοῖς ἀνακείμενον παρά τε Πέρσαις καὶ Πάρθοις καὶ Βάκτροις καὶ Χωρασμίοις καὶ Ἀρείοις καὶ Σάκαις καὶ Μήδοις καὶ παρὰ πολλοῖς ἄλλοις βαρβάροις, ἐρρωμένοι τέ εἰσι καὶ πολυχρόνιοι διὰ τὸ μαγεύειν διαιτώμενοι καὶ αὐτοὶ ἀκριβέστερον. ἤδη δὲ καὶ ἔθνη ὅλα μακροβιώτατα, ὥσπερ Σῆρας μὲν ἱστοροῦσι μέχρι τριακοσίων ζῆν ἐτῶν, οἱ μὲν τῷ ἀέρι, οἱ δὲ τῇ γῇ τὴν αἰτίαν τοῦ μακροῦ γήρως προστιθέντες, οἱ δὲ καὶ τῇ διαίτῃ· ὑδροποτεῖν γάρ φασι τὸ ἔθνος τοῦτο σύμπαν. καὶ Ἀθῴτας δὲ μέχρι τριάκοντα καὶ ἑκατὸν ἐτῶν βιοῦν ἱστορεῖται, καὶ τοὺς Χαλδαίους ὑπὲρ τὰ ἑκατὸν ἔτη βιοῦν λόγος, τούτους μὲν καὶ κριθίνῳ ἄρτῳ χρωμένους, ὡς ὀξυδορκίας τοῦτο φάρμακον·

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The Witch of Endor, by the Master of Otto van Moerdrecht, 15th century

On Falling in Love in Old Age

87 Plato Parmen. 137a and Ibykos fr. 287

“And I certainly seem to be experiencing the fate of Ibykos’ horse, a prize-winner who, even though old, was about to compete in the chariot race and was trembling because of experience at what was about to happen. Ibykos compared himself to him when he said that he too was old and was being compelled to move towards lust”

καίτοι δοκῶ μοι τὸ τοῦ Ἰβυκείου ἵππου πεπονθέναι ᾧ ἐκεῖνος ἀθλητῇ ὄντι καὶ πρεσβυτέρῳ ὑφ᾿ ἅρματι μέλλοντι ἀγωνιεῖσθαι καὶ δι᾿ ἐμπειρίαν τρέμοντι τὸ μέλλον ἑαυτὸν ἀπεικάζων ἄκων ἔφη καὶ αὐτὸς οὕτω πρεσβευτὴς ὢν εἰς τὸν ἔρωτα ἀναγκάζεσθαι ἰέναι.

schol. ad loc. 

[Scholiast] Here is the saying of Ibykos the lyric poet:

τὸ τοῦ μελοποιοῦ Ἰβύκου ῥητόν·

“Love again, gazing up from under dark lashes,
Throws me down with every kind of spell
Into the Cyprian’s endless nets.
In truth, I tremble at this arrival,
Just as a prize-winning horse on the yoke in old age
Goes into the contest with his swift wheels, but not willingly.”

Ἔρος αὖτέ με κυανέοισιν ὑπὸ
βλεφάροις τακέρ᾿ ὄμμασι δερκόμενος
κηλήμασι παντοδαποῖς ἐς ἀπειρα
δίκτυα Κύπριδος ἐσβάλλει·
ἦ μὰν τρομέω νιν ἐπερχόμενον,
ὥστε φερέζυγος ἵππος ἀεθλοφόρος ποτὶ γήρᾳ
ἀέκων σὺν ὄχεσφι θοοῖς ἐς ἅμιλλαν ἔβα

Greek Anthology, 5.26

“If I saw you shining with dark hair
Or at another time with blond locks, mistress,
The same grace would gleam from both.
Love will make its home in your hair even when it’s gray.”

Εἴτε σε κυανέῃσιν ἀποστίλβουσαν ἐθείραις,
εἴτε πάλιν ξανθαῖς εἶδον, ἄνασσα, κόμαις,
ἴση ἀπ’ ἀμφοτέρων λάμπει χάρις. ἦ ῥά γε ταύταις
θριξὶ συνοικήσει καὶ πολιῇσιν ῎Ερως.

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A force of nature

Desire, Pleasure, and Sophocles

Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 12 510d-c

“Enjoying something, certainly, requires a desire first and then comes the pleasure. The poet Sophocles, as a matter of fact, was one of those people who enjoy life, in order that he might not criticize old age, blamed his inability to get pleasure from sex on wisdom, pretending that he had happily been freed from those desires as if from some cruel master.

But I insist that the “Judgment of Paris was depicted by the more ancient poets as a contest between virtue and pleasure. When Aphrodite was selected—and she represented pleasure—everything went to shit. It also seems likely to me that Xenophon made up his story about Herakles and virtue for the same reason.”

Ἡ γὰρ ἀπόλαυσις δήπου μετ᾿ ἐπιθυμίας πρῶτον, ἔπειτα μεθ᾿ ἡδονῆς. καίτοι Σοφοκλῆς γ᾿ ὁ ποιητής, τῶν ἀπολαυστικῶν γε εἷς ὤν, ἵνα μὴ κατηγορῇ τοῦ γήρως, εἰς σωφροσύνην ἔθετο τὴν ἀσθένειαν αὐτοῦ τὴν περὶ τὰς τῶν ἀφροδισίων ἀπολαύσεις, φήσας ἀσμένως ἀπηλλάχθαι αὐτῶν ὥσπερ τινὸς δεσπότου. ἐγὼ δέ φημι καὶ τὴν τοῦ Πάριδος κρίσιν ὑπὸ τῶν παλαιοτέρων πεποιῆσθαι ἡδονῆς πρὸς ἀρετὴν οὖσαν σύγκρισιν· προκριθείσης γοῦν τῆς Ἀφροδίτης, αὕτη δ᾿ ἐστὶν ἡ ἡδονή, πάντα συνεταράχθη. καί μοι δοκεῖ καὶ ὁ καλὸς ἡμῶν Ξενοφῶν τὸν περὶ τὸν Ἡρακλέα καὶ τὴν Ἀρετὴν μῦθον ἐντεῦθεν πεπλακέναι.

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Cranky about the State of the Country

Cicero, letters to Atticus 375 (11 May 44)

“I have no doubt that our state is looking at war. This affair has been managed with a man’s bravery and a child’s planning. Can’t everyone see that a king was removed but his heir was left on the throne?

What is more ridiculous? To fear this but not to consider that a risk at all! There is still in this moment much which is crooked. That the house of Pontius near Naples is held by the mother of that tyrannicide! Oh!

I should read the “Cato the Elder” I made for you more often. Old age is making me rather cranky. I am annoyed by everything. But, certainly, I have lived. Let the young men see to these things. You will care for my affairs as you do.”

Mihi autem non est dubium quin res spectet ad castra. acta enim illa res est animo virili, consilio puerili. quis enim hoc non vidit, <regem sublatum>,2 regni heredem relictum? quid autem absurdius? ‘hoc metuere, alterum in metu non ponere!’ quin etiam hoc ipso tempore multa ὑποσóλοικα. Ponti Neapolitanum a matre tyrannoctoni possideri! legendus mihi saepius est ‘Cato maior’ ad te missus. amariorem enim me senectus facit. stomachor omnia. sed mihi quidem βεβíωται; viderint iuvenes. tu mea curabis, ut curas.

cranky cicero

Pliny’s Guidelines for A Retirement Well-Spent

Pliny, Letters 3.1 to Calvisius Rufus

“I am incapable of recalling a time I spent as pleasantly as I just did when I went to see Spurinna—and, in fact, I cannot imagine anyone I would rather imitate more in my old age, should I be allowed to grow old. For no way of living is better designed than his. A well-planned life pleases me as much as the circuit of the stars. This is especially true when it comes to the old—for while a limited amount of chaos and excitement is not inappropriate for the young, a completely calm and ordered life is better for the elderly. Their public service is over and any aims for advancement is perverse at this point.

Spurinna insistently follows this rule and even in small things—minor if they did not happen daily—he follows a plan as if an orbiting body. He lies abed a bit every morning but then asks for his shoes in the second hour and takes a three-mile walk to exercise his mind no less than his body. If his friends are present, they have the most earnest conversations. If they are not there, he has a book read—something he also does at times when his friends are there if it will not annoy them too much. Then, once he sits down, the book is read again or, even better, the conversation continues. Then he climbs into his carriage and takes his wife—a model of her gender—or some friend—recently, me!—along with him.

How fine it is, how sweet a secret! How much of the past one finds there—what deeds and what heroes you hear of! What principles you absorb! He bows to his own modesty, however, and does not seem to give orders. After he has been driven seven miles or so, he walks another mile, and then returns to sit again or he goes back to his writing. For then he writes the most learned lyric lines in both Latin and Greek—they are amazingly sweet and impressive as well for their charm, humor, and grace which the taste of the one who writes them only increases.”

Nescio an ullum iucundius tempus exegerim, quam quo nuper apud Spurinnam fui, adeo quidem ut neminem magis in senectute, si modo senescere datum est, aemulari velim; nihil est enim illo vitae genere distinctius. Me autem ut certus siderum cursus ita vita hominum disposita delectat. Senum praesertim: nam iuvenes confusa adhuc quaedam et quasi turbata non indecent, senibus placida omnia et ordinata conveniunt, quibus industria sera turpis ambitio est.

Hanc regulam Spurinna constantissime servat; quin etiam parva haec—parva si non cotidie fiant—ordine quodam et velut orbe circumagit. Mane lectulo continetur, hora secunda calceos poscit, ambulat milia passuum tria nec minus animum quam corpus exercet. Si adsunt amici, honestissimi sermones explicantur; si non, liber legitur, interdum etiam praesentibus amicis, si tamen illi non gravantur. Deinde considit, et liber rursus aut sermo libro potior; mox vehiculum ascendit, adsumit uxorem singularis exempli vel aliquem amicorum, ut me  proxime. Quam pulchrum illud, quam dulce secretum! quantum ibi antiquitatis! quae facta, quos viros audias! quibus praeceptis imbuare! quamvis ille hoc temperamentum modestiae suae indixerit, ne  praecipere videatur. Peractis septem milibus passuum iterum ambulat mille, iterum residit vel se cubiculo ac stilo reddit. Scribit enim et quidem utraque lingua lyrica doctissima; mira illis dulcedo. mira suavitas, mira hilaritas, cuius gratiam cumulat sanctitas scribentis.

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A Routine for Managing Old Age from Cicero

Cicero, De Senectute 35-36

“Laelius and Scipio, we must resist old age and counteract its weaknesses with care. We must fight against it as we would a disease. A heath regimen must be established. We need moderate exercise and only as much food and drink as is needed to replenish our abilities but not to overcome them. And we should not attend to the body alone: but much greater service is owed to the mind and soul.

For these parts flicker out from old age just as a lamps unfilled with oil waver and dim. The body, moreover, grows worn out from excessive exercise, but our minds are unburdened by working out. For, the men Caecilius calls “the comic old fools” are those he means to mark out as credulous, forgetful, and discombobulated. These are not the faults of old age altogether, but of a lazy, careless, and sleepy old age. Just as petulance and lust are more often traits of young men than old ones, yet are not present in all young men but only the corruptible ones, so too is that aged foolishness which people usually call senility a mark of those who have weak minds, not of all old men.”

Resistendum, Laeli et Scipio, senectuti est eiusque vitia diligentia compensanda sunt, pugnandum tamquam contra morbum sic contra senectutem, habenda  ratio valetudinis, utendum exercitationibus modicis, tantum cibi et potionis adhibendum, ut reficiantur vires, non opprimantur. Nec vero corpori solum subveniendum est, sed menti atque animo multo magis. Nam haec quoque, nisi tamquam lumini oleum instilles, exstinguuntur senectute. Et corpora quidem exercitationum defetigatione ingravescunt, animi autem exercitando levantur. Nam quos ait Caecilius “comicos stultos senes,” hos significat credulos obliviosos dissolutos, quae vitia sunt non senectutis, sed inertis ignavae somniculosae senectutis. Ut petulantia, ut libido magis est adulescentium quam senum, nec tamen omnium adulescentium, sed non proborum, sic ista senilis stultitia, quae deliratio appellari solet, senum levium est, non omnium.

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Dinner Conversation Prompts from Plutarch: Old Men and Strong Wine

If you experience any lulls in conversation during your holiday meals and gatherings, here’s another topic ready-to-hand.

Plutarch, “Table-Talk”, Moralia 624: Why Do Old Men Prefer Strong Wine?

“Next was examined the issue of old men, in particular why they enjoy drinking stronger wine. Some were supposing that their core, which is rather cold and difficult to warm, appearsto accord well with a stronger proof. This was not at all sufficient, in the light of cause nor in that they said anything true. For, in respect to the rest of the senses, the same thing happens: old men are hard to move, hard to change in regards to experiences of this sort, unless they fall on him with full strength and no subtlety. The reason for this is the decline of his constitution. Because it is weakened and dulled, it prefers to be struck hard.

Therefore stronger flavors are more to the taste of old men. Their sense of smell undergoes similar alterations regarding odors—for it is moved to pleasure by those that are really pure and pressing. Their sense of touch is harmed by scars and while they suffer wounds from time to time, they don’t really feel them. Similar too is their sense of hearing—musicians as they grow old play more sharply and loudly as if trying to wake up their senses with the clash  of sound. The treatment that gives steel an edge provides the body’s perception with breath. When this begins to surrender and is weak, the senses are left dull and muddy and needing some shaking—this is what need strong wine fills.”

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Διὰ τί μᾶλλον ἀκράτῳ χαίρουσιν οἱ γέροντες

Ἐζητεῖτο περὶ τῶν γερόντων, διὰ τί μᾶλλον ἀκρατοτέρῳ τῷ ποτῷ χαίρουσιν. οἱ μὲν οὖν κατεψυγμένην τὴν ἕξιν αὐτῶν καὶ δυσεκθέρμαντον οὖσαν οἰόμενοι διὰ τοῦτο τῇ σφοδρότητι τῆς κράσεως ἐναρμόττειν ἐφαίνοντο κοινόν τι καὶ πρόχειρον οὐχ ἱκανὸν δὲ πρὸς τὴν αἰτίαν οὐδ᾿ ἀληθὲς λέγοντες· καὶ γὰρ ἐπὶ τῶν ἄλλων αἰσθήσεων τὸ αὐτὸ συμβέβηκεν· δυσκίνητοι γάρ εἰσι καὶ δυσμετάβλητοι πρὸς τὰς ἀντιλήψεις τῶν ποιοτήτων, ἂν μὴ κατάκοροι καὶ σφοδραὶ προσπέσωσιν. αἰτία δ᾿ ἡ τῆς ἕξεως ἄνεσις· ἐκλυομένη γὰρ καὶ ἀτονοῦσα πλήττεσθαι φιλεῖ. διὸ τῇ τε γεύσει μάλιστα τοὺς δηκτικοὺς προσίενται χυμούς, ἥ τ᾿ ὄσφρησις αὐτῶν ὅμοια πέπονθε πρὸς τὰς ὀσμάς, κινεῖται γὰρ ὑπὸ τῶν ἀκράτων καὶ σφοδρῶν ἥδιον· ἡ δ᾿ ἁφὴ πρὸς τὰ ἕλκη δυσπαθής, τραύματα γὰρ ἐνίοτε λαμβάνοντες οὐ μάλα πονοῦσιν· ὁμοιότατον δὲ γίγνεται τὸ τῆς ἀκοῆς, οἱ γὰρ μουσικοὶ γηρῶντες ὀξύτερον ἁρμόζονται καὶ σκληρότερον οἷον ὑπὸ πληγῆς τῆς συντόνου φωνῆς ἐγείροντες τὸ αἰσθητήριον. ὅ τι γὰρ σιδήρῳ πρὸς ἀκμὴν στόμωμα, τοῦτο σώματι πνεῦμα παρέχει πρὸς αἴσθησιν· ἐνδόντος δὲ τούτου καὶ χαλάσαντος, ἀργὸν ἀπολείπεται καὶ γεῶδες τὸ αἰσθητήριον καὶ σφοδροῦ τοῦ νύττοντος, οἷον ὁ ἄκρατός ἐστι δεόμενον.

If I were in this conversation I would add: the older man also needs to urinate more frequently. A stronger drink means less liquid consumed for the desired result. And, therefore, fewer trips to the bathroom.